A visitor to Kuwait first notices that virtually all traces of the Iraqi invasion are gone. With a speed that surprised everyone, Kuwaitis managed to extinguish hundreds of burning oil wells, repair thousands of buildings and houses, and remove millions of land mines. The work of cleaning and fixing has been so complete, if you didn't already know about the Iraqi invasion, you wouldn't know it took place by looking around. Indeed, in a few cases the government has actually cancelled repair work to save some evidence as witness to the invasion's awful barbarism.
But if Kuwait has externally returned to its old self, internally it is a much changed place. As one Kuwaiti told me during a trip last month, "The invasion made us a serious people." He is right. Before the invasion, Kuwaitis had enjoyed lives of astonishing privilege and indulgence. Oil revenues provided the basis for the good life and a sensible government gave the people freedom. Kuwaitis had better prospects than any other oil exporter, for the wise policy of salting money away promised them interest and dividends even as their OPEC brethren struggled with lowered oil prices.
Some of that privilege remains. In fundamental ways, Kuwait continues to be a society in two parts, masters (i.e., Kuwaiti citizens) and servants (all others). For those lucky enough to be served rather than serve, the money is still more than adequate, even if it's not what it used to be. The trouble is, the Iraqi invasion destroyed the easy assumption of old, that the state would take care of everyone. Many Kuwaitis previously content to live off their government salary now want money in their own accounts abroad. Toward this end, they have to hustle commercially. I felt this directly, as one pleasant young man assigned by the government to help me get around was slightly overburdened between his restaurant, his car dealership, and taking care of me.
Kuwaitis have profoundly changed their views of their government and of the outside world. The ruling Sabah family has come in for much criticism. Some of it concerns the invasion: Why had Kuwait given over $15 billion dollars to Iraq during the 1980s? Why was the country strategically isolated on August 2, 1990? Why was it so completely unprepared for the invasion? Criticism extends to other matters too, foremost among them the disappearance of some $5 billion from official investments in Spain.
The re-establishment of Kuwait's parliament just over a year ago provides a forum for this discontent. The day in January when I observed its proceedings, deputies discussed the delicate question of ministerial prosecution (that is, how are those responsible for the Spanish fiasco going to be judged?) and the government lost the vote 0-39. The acrimony of this event and the wide attention paid to it brought home two points: Kuwaitis feel an urgent need to figure out how to order their society and the place of the ruling family in it; and domestic considerations now dominate the public debate.
Indeed, that Kuwaitis do not feel an acute sense of urgency about the outside world comes as something of a shock. When pressed, virtually every Kuwaiti acknowledges that Kuwait remains rich and weak; that Iraq and Iran remain aggressive states; and that American troops remain the sole guarantor of Kuwait's security, even its very existence. But domestic issues absorb so much attention, only a few sophisticated voices worry much about the outside world.
In this regard, Kuwaitis resemble Americans: both peoples have turned their attention away from external issues to concentrate on rebuilding their societies. The difference is that while Americans can afford such introspection, Kuwaitis cannot. I worry that Kuwaiti fascination with domestic matters will render their country, once again, vulnerable to its thuggish neighbors.
This prospect worries me not just for the sake of Kuwait but as an American. Resurrecting Kuwait achieved something important for U.S. interests. Kuwait joined that long list of countries which enjoys a free existence thanks to the United States of America. Admittedly, Kuwait is pretty minor compared to the other countries that fit this description-all of Europe, the former Soviet Union, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Israel-but it stands out as the first Arab state in the category.
As such, it offers a unique opportunity. Lacking the profound anti-Americanism found in all other Arabic-speaking countries, Kuwait could be our first Arab ally. We have tactical arrangements with other countries (Egypt, Saudi Arabia), but Kuwait could be different-a real ally, with which we share values and long-term goals. Despite its small size and population, Kuwait has much to offer: a critical location, a foothold within OPEC, a leading cultural influence, and a political model for its neighbors.
Trouble is, both Kuwaitis and Americans have for the moment lost interest in the other. The time has come for both of us to pay more attention to the other and reap the many potential benefits of stronger U.S.-Kuwait ties. If we don't, we'll pay for it when the Persian Gulf goes through its next round of troubles.